The Challenges of Racing the Ironman in the Desert

by | Jan 12, 2010 | Healthy Lifestyle

It’s been 9 years since my last Ironman race in April 2008. Finding this old post brought back some amazing memories for me, not only was it my best race yet, but I had the support of Dan, my parents, my sister Sophie and my best friend Lee-Anne.  It made a very challenging day so much nicer!  Here’s how the day unfolded, back on April 13, 2008. This was originally shared as an email after the event.

The Challenges of Racing the Ironman in the Desert

Another day, another Ironman success! I am pleased to report that despite 30 mph winds, 98F heat and an 18% attrition rate, I completed Ironman Arizona in 14 hr 8 min, only 5 min off my personal best in Ironman Canada 2003 (my first).   The bottom line is I finished 1020 out of over 2000 who started the race, my best overall placing in an Ironman.

I was 36 of out 87 in my age group, by far my best placing ever in an Ironman for my age group.  My swim was great – 1 hr 3 min, which was good enough for 7th in my age group and 295th overall.  I was thrilled to be crossing the finish line in just over 5 min from my PB, having raised $4000 for Team Diabetes Canada as well.

The full story is below, keep going if you like.  I just wanted to say thank-you to everyone who supported me, thank-you for all of your good wishes during race week and on race day. I REALLY appreciated it.  And a BIG THANK-YOU to my Iron Team, my parents, sister, best friend and boyfriend. It was such a pleasure to have so many people I love with me on race weekend.

Arriving on site on race day:

We arrived at the race site at 5 am, just as the athletes were allowed to enter the transition area. I was in my Zone, listening to my favourite tunes on my Ipod and just focusing on my day ahead.  I took some time to drop off my special needs bags (for later in the race) and to get body marked (marker with your number on your arms and calfs).  The time seemed to pass very quickly and before I knew it was squeezing into my new 2XU wetsuit, complete with pink stripes.

We made our way to the swim start, a jump off a dock at 6:35 am.  As there was a separate pro start at 6:45, we didn’t actually get to warm up for the swim, which is not great for me, as I usually like to warm up for at least 15 min.  I did what I could and ended up treading water for about 15 min, right at the front of the pack. The gun went off at 7 am and we were off, directly into the sun.  As the course was not straight, this ended up being quite a challenge.

The Swim

It was rough for a while, being punched, kicked and grabbed, as no one could even see their hand in front of their face.  I thought it would get better as we turned to come back (out of the sun) but it was still rough.  I never really found another person to draft off, so that swim was more tiring than I thought.  I was pleased with my time, and even more pleased when I realized how fast it was overall – everyone had a rough swim.The day started with a warning, with the extreme heat and wind, it’s best to just focus on one goal – get to the finish line safely.

I quickly decided to just focus on hydration and keeping myself from ending up in the medical tent.  Many of you know how much I suffer in the heat and how I generally end up with major GI distress when racing, so these were pretty decent goals for me.  My goal of going under 14 hours evaporated (very quickly in the dry heat, I might add) and it became a game of survival. It was a long walk to the change tent (who runs??) and I took my time to get ready, apply sunscreen and make sure I had all of the food I thought I needed.

The Bike

I got out on the bike (the racks were still full) and off I went on lap one.  The first thing I noticed was that it was already hot at 8:15 am. The second thing I noticed was that it was already windy!  The first lap out was very tough. There is only one hill, which was into the very strong wind (I could see sand twisters in the desert on the bike).  I almost cried when I got to the turnaround and was extremely happy to be going downhill, with the wind.  I was being very diligent with my food and my hydration.  I slowed at every aid station, poured water on my helmet and took a bottle of water and a bottle of Gatorade.  It was tough to eat anything solid except oranges, shot blocks and sport beans.  The way back was great, except for the wind gusts which nearly knocked me off my bike.

Lap two was extremely challenging and the lowest point of the race for me.  I was really struggling up the hill, although I was still passing people who were struggling even more.  I considered not going on to the run.  There was a hot wind blowing and I literally felt like I was cooking. Luckily, my Iron Team was waiting at the bottom of the hill so their cheers and support really helped me, both on the way up and the way down.  I made it, turned around and went back for another lap.

The wind had died down a bit, and as I had been diligent with hydration, I still felt pretty good and was still eating and drinking.  As I finished the third lap, I saw people heading out for their third lap, knowing that there was no way they could possibly make the cut off time.  I was truly grateful to be getting off the bike.  As I stumbled into transition (you should see the video!), I took my time, got my stuff and made sure I was prepared for the run.  I took off my watch, knowing that I was about 30 min behind my time if I wanted to break 14 hours, so I just didn’t want to think about my pace anymore and just go with how I was feeling.

The Run

As I walked out of the tent into the scorching sun, I actually didn’t feel too bad. It was hot, but I still had something left, so I started running.  And I was able to run from aid station to aid station. At every station I stopped and took my time, again making sure I had ice, sponges, extra water and Gatorade in my fuel belt and maybe a piece of orange. I was still well hydrated (no GI distress at all) so I just decided to keep running until I couldn’t.

I took my time to cheer people on as I went by them, as the majority of the athletes were walking.  I thought that if I could focus on them instead of my own pain, it would be easier. Most of the marathon was on concrete (why???) which was very tough on the knees.  The best part of this 3 loop course is that it allows you to see your Iron Team several times each lap – that just made my marathon so much better. I know that I wouldn’t have been as strong had it not been for their cheers and smiles.

Lap two came and went and as I got to the end of that lap, the sun started to set.  It was like a new world.  Although it was still about 29C, it was so nice to no longer be baking. I asked for the time and realized that I was still within good reach of my 14 hour goal.  I decided to just stick to the plan, run to each aid station, take my time through the station and make sure I stayed healthy. I did start to feel sick and had trouble taking in anything but water, but I kept running.

The blisters were getting bigger (thanks for the dry socks Sophie) and it was still painful, but it’s an Ironman, it’s supposed to hurt.  I figured if it didn’t hurt then everyone would do it. By then, everyone else was pretty much walking.  I just kept plugging along, at my pace, smiling as much as possible.  As I came around for the last few kms, I just couldn’t believe that I was still running. Lee-Anne was waiting for me about 500 m from the finish line with my Team Diabetes shirt and the Canadian Flag for me to wave as I came through the finishing shoot.


It was an awesome finish! Everyone was cheering, GO Canada and yeah Team Diabetes! I was smiling and really felt awesome. When I saw the clock, I was thrilled!! 14 hr 8 min, only 5 min off my best time – and not only that, I really didn’t feel that awful.  I crossed the line with a big smile and walked off.  I didn’t need the medical tent and I was even able to eat something (never happens). My family was there for me with big smiles and kisses and I have never felt more proud of any race in my life.

On a day where people were dropping on the side of the road on the bike, lying on the grass with oxygen masks and being sick on the race course, making it across the line without ending up in the medical tent was an amazing accomplishment.  Thank-you to everyone who was there for me not only at the race, but during the long winter training sessions, training camp in South Carolina (especially after the bike crash) and all of those who supported my cause. Although Ironman is an individual event, I know that it takes a team of people to get you to the finish line.  I am very grateful to have such wonderful support from so many different sources.

Julie oxox

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